Patrick Finley: Science, baseball play well together

2012-11-01T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T15:35:38Z Patrick Finley: Science, baseball play well togetherPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 01, 2012 12:00 am  • 

I recognized the book Ricardo Valerdi parked on his office table Wednesday.

I first read "The Physics of Baseball" in seventh grade. It was written by Robert K. Adair for his friend Bart Giamatti, the future Major League Baseball commissioner, who wanted scientific reasoning behind his favorite sport.

I rediscovered it at Bookman's a few years ago and bought it to keep on my shelf. My favorite takeaway, when I was a kid, and now: "There's no such thing as a rising fastball."

"I don't want the kids to want to become professional baseball players," Valerdi, the Arizona Science of Baseball program creator, told me. "If that happens, I'll consider it a failure."

Valerdi came to the UA's department of systems and industrial engineering from MIT last year and soon began adapting his old school's program that explained math and science through baseball.

He found a private donor and formed a perfect marriage with Mansfeld Middle School.

Mansfeld is across East Sixth Street from the UA and focuses on wellness and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM.

It had grant money, too.

Despite not getting extra credit, 20 students, many needing extra academic attention, signed up for the inaugural Science of Baseball program. It's in the middle of a six-Saturday run, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"Week 1, they were told to come," Valerdi said. "Week 2, they came on their own."

From 10 a.m. to noon, students - about two-thirds boys - talk science and math in a UA classroom.

They figure out the best angle at which to hit home runs (35 degrees), calculate a pitcher's WHIP (walks plus hits, divided by innings pitched) and tabulate how much money A-Rod made per pitch last year (about $10,000).

They break for lunch and talk nutrition at noon before returning to Mansfeld for some afternoon baseball.

Using bats, balls and gloves purchased with donations, students act out their math equations.

"A lot of times, kids don't see the connection between the work in the classroom and the real-world things that they love," said Mansfeld principal Paul DeWeerdt. "Baseball is the perfect avenue, with the learning aspects of math and physics.

"Then they get a little more motivated. That's the beautiful part about it."

Arizona Wildcats baseball coach Andy Lopez will talk to the class Saturday.

Years ago, he chatted up Terry Bahill, a former UA professor, who, with a partner, wrote "Keep Your Eye on the Ball: The Science and Folklore of Baseball."

Bahill - who, oddly, worked out of Valerdi's current office - "proceeded to try to help an idiotic coach like me explain his concepts," Lopez said.

"I wish I could have comprehended them," said Lopez, promised to pick Valerdi's brain this time.

Lopez will tell the kids that one of his great regrets was never mastering math.

"It's in my life every day," he said. "And, man, do I sit around and go, 'Dang it, why didn't I pay attention?'"

That's not unusual.

Valerdi showed me a chart explaining what he called the "leaking STEM pipeline."

In 2001, about 4 million students entered ninth grade and 2.8 million graduated high school. Of those, less than half - 1.3 million or so - were college ready.

About 277,550 majored in STEM fields and only 166,530 graduated with STEM-related degrees.

"By the time they get to me, I can't influence the pipeline," Valerdi said. "It's too late."

"What's the sweet spot? Seventh graders. You get them to change their mentality. To change their direction."

I was in seventh grade when I read "The Physics of Baseball."

I didn't become a scientist, but I stayed interested. So do the kids at Mansfeld, who are starting to envision themselves thriving on a college campus.

The gap between Mansfeld and the UA is wider than Sixth Street, Valerdi said. So he's helping to build a bridge across it.

"It's not about baseball," Valerdi said. "It's about creating engineers and scientists."

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